In order to tell the story of the Third Reich to an American audience from a unique perspective – that of Germans living during the era – Nicole Rittenmeyer of New Animal Productions (JFK: 3 Shots that Changed America) scoured German sources ranging from official archives to home movies. The end result, Third Reich: The Rise and Fall, airs on History December 14 and 15.
Like the New York-based prodco’s earlier projects, JFK and 102 Minutes that Changed America (with Siskel/Jacobs Productions), with Third Reich, New Animal aimed to document the German mindset of the era, ranging from the average German housewife to those in the Nazi party, fully from footage.
‘We stumbled onto collections of amateur home movies from Germans at the time,’ she recounts. ‘People [are] infinitely [more] relatable when you see home movies, even if it’s a different culture, in a different era, under a different political system. Everybody has birthdays and summer vacations, and you start to identify in some way [with them].
‘Once you start to put yourself in their positions, it becomes a much more nuanced, authentic and fresh way of looking at what happened to Germans during that time.’
The doc has four main archival sources: the Bundesarchiv, Germany’s national archives; amateur German film collections from La Camera Stylo and historian Joachim Castan and family footage from journalist Wibke Bruhns, author of My Father’s Country: The Story of a German Family. Rittenmeyer says that navigating the Bundesarchiv’s collections proved difficult, which is perhaps the reason that others tend to rely on the often-seen, tried and true footage. Third Reich uses unseen family footage from Bruhns – who Rittenmeyer calls ‘the Diane Sawyer of Germany’ and whose father, Hans Georg Klamroth, was one of 200 SS officers executed for playing a part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Third Reich also uses some footage and research of the Holocaust from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, specifically material concerning the Einsatzgruppen SS paramilitary death squads’ ‘aktions,’ or killings of Jews outside of the extermination camps.
‘There’s actually a few existing filmic records of when Germans would film these ‘aktions,” says Rittenmeyer. ‘It was illegal to film that stuff because the Nazis knew that they were doing something terrible. Little scraps of it have survived and we’ve initiated this all-out effort to find them and include them,’ she says.
She details her surprise at both finding these records and the content within them. One reel began with footage of German soldiers on a boat vacation. ‘[They're] touring around the Black Sea, eating lobster and the very next images that are on this film are this horrible ‘aktion’ on Jewish men, women and children in Poland, dragging them around by their hair,’ she recalls.
Finding much of the previously unseen material took two years, as the New Animal team was met with many challenges in finding German archive footage. ‘There’s a whole different set of rules, it’s a different language, and [the material] would be mislabeled and miscataloged,’ she says. ‘Germany was so devastated after the war that this stuff was found in scraps and piles. The British took it, sometimes we took it; the rights issues were gnarly at best.’
In the end, Rittenmeyer says the goal of the project was to give modern North American audiences an opportunity to learn more about the era through the eyes of those who were there. ‘If you’re going to take four hours of time on History to talk about the Third Reich, you damn well better have something new to say,’ she maintains. ‘How about delving extremely deeply into what living during the Third Reich meant for the people who were there.’